Tag Archive for 'Sydney'

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Building a (sustainable) business

One of the highlights at Bar camp Sydney, held on March 3rd 2007, was a presentation by Martin Wells and Mike Cannon-Brookes on “How to Start a company”. Both men have a lot of wisdom to share, which was worth every penny (no pun on the fact the event was free). However despite an awesome presentation that covered a lot of ground, there was one slide that in particular annoyed me. It bothered me so much that I wanted to say so, but I thought it might be better to let it be because the guys were doing an otherwise great job.

My problem was slide number two. It listed four companies as ‘ideal’ start-up businesses for all those in the room. Those companies were Flickr, Del.icio.us, YouTube, and MyBlogLog. Why I had a problem with that, was because if that is what web entrepreneurs are being told to look up to, then we have a bit of a problem.

Continue reading ‘Building a (sustainable) business’

Biz is back

It’s been over a year since I returned from my trip, and updated this blog. Shit farken.

Life as been very full for me – work is demanding, the diploma I am doing life-threatening – but having said that though, I don’t miss traveling. I do think about my experience a hell of a lot – it was a lot more than just a museum here and a party there – but I am very settled here now and not itching to go (yet). I am focussed now on another one of my life’s goals, which put simply, is setting myself up for the rest of my life – making money doing something I love to do. So what do I love to do?

Well I’ll save that for another time, but one thing I have to start doing again is to get back into blogging. I’m a writer at heart, and I’ve been meaning to get back into it since – well, since December 2005. I’ve done some internal blogging at work this year, and I attended the first ever bar camp in Australia yesterday, and I realised it’s time to stop putting it off, and time to start doing what I should be doing. I’ve just upgraded wordpress, and I need a new design other than this default crap, but I’ll leave that for when I have time (which is when I procrastinate for my exams…)

So here is to Liako.Biz – mark II! And I promise, no whiny stuff about my life – I blog because I have an opinion – not because I want your attention to validate my existence. So check out my next post, which is a sign of things to come…

Finale!

I’m back! After 35 weeks of backpacking, partying, and avoiding reality – I’ve returned back home, surprising nearly everyone. (My parents answered the door 12.30 at night – only 24 hours earlier, I had an argument with them on the phone that I was determined to fly to Syria – they nearly had a heartattack. On both counts!) The reason I am back is because my employer, well, said so. Unfortunately, it meant I had to change my trip quite drastically (no Middle East, and not the rest of Eastern Europe). Fortunately, I was dying to come back home – I was very much over travelling, and was counting down the days I would end the trip. Travel is a life-long thing, not a “lets-see-everything-now-before-I-have-the-2.4 kids- and-a-mortage”. Just in case you were wondering, after Budapest I caught a train to Belgrade to see some friends, and then flew to Athens to catch up with family.

jeep

My new car – seriously. Bank loan was approved today, I pick up this 2004 Jeep wrangler next Wednesday.

Five days after I arrived, I started full-time work in a Graduate-entry position at PwC – where for an intense two weeks, we were being trained on things I already knew as I have previously worked at the firm (it was still tiring though). Now, I am on my first week of three weeks of holiday (it’s a hard life!), and I am busy catching up with friends, and organising myself for what is literaly a new stage of my life. Oh, and recovering – I think my pneumonia is trying to make a comeback because I am so exausted – I probably have bronchitis. Doctor said I was fine when I first arrived, but the PwC training really took it out of me when I should have been relaxing.

…Jesus, I just did some quick arithmetic, and over my 35 weeks, I visitied about 25 countries and twice as many cities, villages, and islands! Talking about my trip has become tedious, and I am finding it difficult to tell people things – partially because, I don’t know where to start.

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After my work’s Christmas Party (theme was “Bollywood” by the way), I went out to the city, and as I had my camera on me, I could not resist taking this photo. I found this guy on the streets of Sydney. I reckon he had a good night.

The travel bug in me is completely dead. But like Lazarus – expect it to come back one day. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Merry Christmas!

Poland, Prague and Budapest

When it comes to my blog, I love using regions. Updating it, whilst is valuable in retrospect, is an absolute pain in the arse when I have to write them. For that reason, I have created a new region of the last three countries on my trip. Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary – I dub thee the "Visegr?ɬ°d Three" (Slovakia, you be quiet now). Thinking back on those nearly three weeks, the memory is a bit scant, as it was just one big drinking binge. But it turns out I have an audience on this blog, so I’ll pretend I learnt something. I spent about 11 days in Poland ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú although I regard three of those days as ‘bad hangover’ days so I don’t think they should count. Of those 11 days, four were in the capital Warsaw, four in Krakow (with a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau), and another three days in Wroclaw (pronounced VROTZ-wahf). In the Czech Republic, I spent four days in Prague, and in Hungary about three days in Budapest.

All three of these countries are very different from each other: the Hungarians are descendants of the Magyar tribes that swept across Europe terrorising the continent until they settled there, and later ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the Hapsburg Empire (which became the Austro-Hungarian Empire), a dominant force in central Europe during the late Middle Ages that lasted until WWI. The Poles are Western Slavs, and together with the Lithuanians after a Royal marriage that sealed the deal, had an empire that stretched from the Baltic and Black seas. The people of the Czech Republic, inhabiting the ancient lands of Bohemia and Moravia, are linguistically and to a lesser extent ethnically related to the Poles. The Czech people have been invaded by Hapsburg’s, Nazis, Soviets and tour groups. They may not have dominated Europe like Hungary or Poland, but they have always been valuable territory for the empires that held them.

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Corner of a building in Prague

What makes these three very different countries so similar however, is their location. The Czech Republic is smack-bang in the middle of Europe, and together with Hungary and Poland, are a large component of Central Europe. The significance of this is that Europe has a very rich history, and heck, if you are in the middle, it means you’ve been involved in almost everything that has touched the continent. For example, their locations has meant that none of the local problems have remained local: when Czechs rejection of the Roman Catholic Church in 1418 resulted in the Hussite Wars; the revolt against the Hapsburg’s in 1618 started the horrible Thirty Years’ War; the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 was the opening scene to WWII; the reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring, led to tanks and soldiers from all over the Eastern Bloc to suppress it; and the peaceful overthrow of the government during the Velvet revolution stands as a model for freedom-seekers, such as the recent revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine, and Armenia. Lets also not forget that before Franz Ferdinand was the name of a band, it was also the name of the Hungarian prince that was assassinated by a Bosnian-Serb in Sarajevo – and is what sparked World War I; whilst Poland experienced the brunt of one of the greatest and most horrific wars of our history (WWII) – evident to the modern traveller by visiting Warsaw and Auschwitz-Birkenau . These three countries play no small role in the European story.

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"The one who does not remember history is bound to live it through again" – George Santayana

Something that striked me about Poland was the law enforcement, and the observance of the law. A simple example is the pedestrian crossings ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in most cities I have visited, you get either one of three types of driver attitude towards them: the type that will stop once you have started crossing (Sydney); the type that won’t stop, but swerve around you as you cross (Tehran) and the type that make you wet your pants, as you run across like a headless chicken to avoid being hit (Athens ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú with the complimentary verbal abuse whilst you run). In Poland however, I merely had to look at a crossing, and a car would slam on the breaks! Another example was when I visited the Russian markets in Warsaw, and my friends and I were going through some pirated CD’s to buy (which may I add, looked more professional than a CD in a record store). As we were looking, the men and women quickly hustled us, and in two seconds, had the CD’s completely out of view. A few seconds later, a police officer strolled by. When he was out of sight, we were able to resume our commerce. Turns out, as they showed us later, they have a sophisticated monitoring network, where they know the exact movements of police near them so they won’t get in trouble. Whilst the funky headsets and organisational skills impressed my two companion friends, I was more stunned by the event itself: copyright enforcement to me is a sign that a country is very well developed. For these guys to sweat when the police officer walked by, tells me you’ve got a very well functioning government enforcing the law. That is the basis for a strong economy ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú especially for something as abstract as intellectual property, which is the basis of a certain buzz word that will solve all our problems like your paycheck and grandpa’s erectile problems.

On the right bank, the Red army stood there, as the Nazis demolished Warsaw

On the right bank, the Soviet army sat there at they watched the Nazi’s burn Warsaw to the ground – the Soviet’s were meant to be on the same side as the Poles. People speculate that Stalin let the Nazi’s do all the hard work, and crush any resistance, so that he would have a clean slate when he occupied the city.

Unfortunately the only "New Economy" thing about Poland, is that they actual have a free market now. And it’s not going down to well: unemployment is high. One of the most talked about backpacker stories, is the Krakow-Prague overnight train ride, where you get gassed while you sleep, only to find all your valuables missing in the morning. A Polish guy in Wroclaw, told me that the worst line of them all, was the Wroclaw-Prague line I was about to get on in one hour (needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night). The theft of course, is because of the high unemployment ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú estimated at 18 percent by this guy I talked to.

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Right next to the Warsaw train station: a funky new building

I found Polish people to be one of the highlights of my trip there. Watching the people in a Polish nightclub became one of my favourite pastimes, as the way Poles dance amused me. I am not saying they are bad dancers, but simply, different from other places. Women for example, seem to have an inbuilt hip-shaking movement which is incredibly sexy, but also seems just a natural as someone breathing. The men on the other hand, are so enthusiastic ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúwith a big cheesy grin, and they dance like they are skiing a ski-slope. Very amusing.
Without resorting to specific examples, the general vibe of the place was very positive. When you travel, you create a lot of theories, my most recent one was that countries that were formally oppressed, have very grumpy locals. But the Poles shut that theory down in flames, as I found everyone to be smiling, laughing, and generally happy. Possibly also a little smart-alec ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in Warsaw, all the strip clubs are located on (Pope) John Paul II Street.

Despite the positive feeling I had from the place, at the back of my mind, I could not forget the atrocities these people had to face. Warsaw is a city that was razed to the ground by the Nazis (as the Soviet’s sat watching) ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú travellers visiting the city moan how ordinary it is, but when you think of its history, you see things differently, and appreciate the Polish spirit. For example, they painstakingly rebuilt their Old Town, with only pre-war pictures and paintings to guide them. The city felt eerie for me. Krakow is a much more beautiful and vibrant city than Warsaw, for obvious reasons (it wasn’t bombed). But everyone visits Krakow, so you probably knew that already. I had a friend that I used to work with in Sydney, that lives in Wroclaw, and I really liked that city as well. Both cities have amazing Market Squares (Krakow’s is the largest in Europe ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Wroclaw not far behind) and they both have an atmosphere in their old towns which I really liked (locals strolling by, entertainers, tacky shops and restaurants). I arrived in Wroclaw at 11pm, and my friend dumped my bags at the local hostel so we could party: Wroclaw and Krakow, like any other university town, is a bit of fun as well. All the Poles I met in Wroclaw, had come from other cities in Poland, and would tell me how much they loved the city and how it is the best one in Poland (Krakow comes close, according to them).

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Krakow during Independence Day, also known to us as Remembrance day (November 11)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are something else ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú where it is estimated estimated that between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 people were murdered by the Nazi’s. I ended up touring the sites on my own, missing my friend’s group tour, but which instead turning into a more powerful experience for me as I did it on my own. I was surprised I didn’t get as emotionally affected as I thought I would, but then again, I consider wanting to punch a wall on two separate occasions as minor outbursts. What made be sick was the evidence of children being killed ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as 12 years old children were treated just like the adults. What really got to me, was seeing a presentation of children shoes. That is, children aged no more than five years old. Walking around Birkenau, which was where most of the exterminations took place, was chilling (and it was a lot of walking ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the site is 171 hectares large). It became very dark when I was touring the huge site, and visiting the compounds of the prisoners and seeing their living conditions, was something that made it hard for me to swallow. Seeing the ruins of the furnaces and gas chambers on Birkenau, as the Nazi’s attempted to cover their crimes on their retreat, just reminds you how recent all of this was.

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The Nazi’s tried to cover up evidence of the killings that occured, by blowing up the gas chambers and furnaces

When I met up with my friends later that night and shared our experiences, they told me how angry they were to see the Jewish children fly the Israeli flag around ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú their point being, it is that nationalism that created conflicts like this. That is usually something I would say, but I don’t really share that sentiment. Sitting in on a Jewish memorial service where the furnaces were in the dark as I wound up my tour on Birkenau, was definitely an experience I am glad I had.

Half the reason I went to Prague was to visit Veronika and Pete ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú two old friends and workmates. The rest of the reason was because I just had to see what the fuss was about. Just as I suspected, not much ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a great city, but way too much hype. It has one of the best integrated transport systems I have been on, and the buildings are very pretty. But that’s exactly the problem with Prague: it’s pretty. It’s a place you visit with your girlfriend, on a weekend away. Having said that though, as my friend Petr showed me, it’s way too much fun for the single (and not single) man.

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Prague’s city centre – the big building is the national library, me thinks

Veronika and Pete miss Australia because of the friendliness of ordinary people. As a contrast, Veronika would complain how clique and rude Czech people were. She reckons, and she is by no means an ugly girl, how hard it is to meet people at a club ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú everyone goes out with their groups of people, and refuse to socialise with other people, because you just don’t do that. Foreigners provide a breath of fresh air to Czech people, because they can break out of that clique.

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Prague: pretty.

Pete also reckons the emphasis on looks here has created a bulimic culture amongst women. He puts the figure at every second or third girl – and a quick look around the club proved him right, as all the girls looked unrealistically thin. On a related conversation I had with this American I met at the hostel who was about to start teaching English, he says how back in the States, everyone raves on about how beautiful Czech women are. However he says they are not beautiful but just skinny! "Everyone is so fat in America", he was saying, "that they see a skinny girl and they go gaga here".

The Soviet museum in Prague deserves a mention. Seeing the communist posters to inspire workers, made me realise how similar communism is to capitalism, with slogans talking about ‘efficiency’ and ‘output’. It was funny to see words I had always associated with capitalism, on a communist poster.
Watching a video about the failed 1968 revolution left me feeling mellow. A pop group mentioned in the video called the Plastic Group of the universe (I am sure it sounds better in Czech) used these lyrics: "Throw away your brains, throw away your hearts. Throw away everything that makes you human, and become pigs". For me, those words really help sum up the things I have learnt about communism and Nazism in the last month. Having just read Stalin’s biography, a quote on the wall helped sum up what took me 500 pages to find out as to how he could do what he did: "One death is a tragedy; one million a statistic". Like a spoilt seven year old with divorced parents, the Stalin’s of the world can get away with murder, because they don’t feel the consequences of their actions as no one will reprimand or tell them. And yet even Stalin was capable of breaking down, when his son was captured by the Nazis ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú because the suffering of the war then became personified with a familiar face. There is no such thing as monsters in history ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú only people detached from reality. It’s not hard to smack them back, it’s just that some need to be smacked harder than others.

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Budapest’s House of Horrors on the other hand, annoyed me. Of all the museums I have seen detailing atrocities of the Nazis and communists, this was the most extravagant of them all, but also the worst. It was too fabricated, and too glossy. When you are talking about horror, take the gloss out.And while we are on it – Budapest as well, was very different from Prague, and as a city I much preferred it as it had more character. Although a girl that helped me at the train station, said she hated it: good for a few days, bad for living here.

My experience with Hungarian people was something else as well. Whenever I was with a group of friends/travel companions, I always saw the rudeness of Hungarians. But in the few times I was alone, I found Hungarian people to be very nice and friendly. Even though I regard Hungarians as friendly, the incidents of rudeness really stuck in my mind ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú like for example, a guy at the ice-rink, literally shooing this woman away, like she was some intruder to a military base, when she inquired when it re-opened.

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Budapest’s parliament

Hungarian’s also just look different. Maybe it’s my historical knowledge that helps colour my perceptions, but if there was one word to describe them it would be "warriors". The men looked very different, very rough and tough. They were also weird: when I went to the baths with some of my female friends, there were incidents when men would just stare. Sure, my friends were pretty, but no one stares like that unless you are a psychotic.
Budapest definitely ranks as one of the most memorable cities I’ve been to, and one which I would put top on the list to visit again. The city has a character which I think all the former Ottoman Empire lands have, like Belgrade and Sarajevo. The baths are an amazing experience, and I really wished I had more time to do the rock-climbing tour underneath the city. It is hard to talk about cities as to why you like them, and it can be done, but this blog posting is getting way to long.

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Budapest’s Heroes square

Something I didn’t mention at the beginning of this posting, was one other similarity the three before-mentioned cities have in common: the are all new members of the European Union. And rising stars whilst they are at it. According to a study published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the Czech Republic ranks as the third most attractive country in the world for off-shoring, after China and India. Whilst cheap labour has something to do with it, the location of the country and its relatively well developed telecommunications and educated workforce help contribute to this.

But notice I said location was an important factor. Like before, the location of these three countries at the centre of Europe’s next big empire (the EU) means that they are again in the spotlight. Expect to hear about these three countries a lot more in the future, as the Visegr?ɬ°d group play catch up to the rest of the developed world.

Russia

My first experience with a Russian, was on the flight from Dubai to Moscow (connection from Tehran). She was my flight neighbour – a twenty-something singer-musician. She didn?Ǭ¥t say much, although she was taking a swig of her bottle of vodka every five minutes. I presumed she had a serious flight phobia.

Turns out there was no phobia. And that bottle of Vodka was three-quarters finished by the time the plane took off. Apparently, she drinks a bottle a day (I always thought it was an apple a day that kept the doctor away?). And what I thought was a quiet neighbour scared of flying, turned out to be a sarcastic alcoholic who started getting a little too friendly.
Half-way into the flight I decided to put her in her place and end the advances, which made the rest of the flight fairly awkward. But nevertheless, I had just had my first Russian experience: alcoholic, sexual, and incredibly sarcastic. Was this a premonition of the days to come?

A bear. Near the river in St Petersburg

Walking across, I saw this fuzzy bit of hair. I thought to myself “that’s a damn big dog”. I walk to the other side of the wall, and it turns out it was a bear.

I had an awesome time in Russia. I spent about ten days there, however to say Moscow and St Petersburg are Russia, is like saying London and Paris are Europe. Needless to say though, alcohol, sexuality, and every type of Russian stereotype you can think of, did feature prominently on my trip.

Russia and alcohol
The contrast between Iran and Russia with regards to alcohol is as startling as say, Osama being elected as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. You can get a bottle of Vodka for practically the same price as a bottle of water. But it is not the cost of alcohol that left me shocked – it was the amount of alcohol Russians drink that shocked me.
An example was on my last day in Moscow, I was on the metro coming from the suburbs with my two buddies from the hostel. On the train, we started talking to some girls next to us – because they looked like they were not a day over 14, and drinking what looked like alcohol (one was also a dead-set ringer for Avril Lavinge). Turns out they were 18, but even so, the legal drinking age is a few years more. It was about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, and these girls were drinking a 12 per cent alcoholic energy drink. They were also a bit pissed. And no one on the train found this unusual at all.
The streets are filled with people drinking in the middle of the day, like a woman causally having lunch with a beer. It’s not just excessive alcohol, but just a lot of alcohol! Kiosks in Moscow that dot the streets with food and beverages, are also stocked up with alcohol. Alcohol is literally everywhere. Even a seasoned Aussie drinker like me couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the drinking culture.

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St Petersburg is architectually awesome

Russia and sexuality and beauty
When someone would ask me what my ideal woman looked like, I never knew how to answer that question. In the 30 minute metro ride I had when I first arrived from Moscow airport to the hostel, I saw 28 versions of my ideal woman. Enough said!

I met this dip shit Australian at a nightclub, who been working in the security business for the last eight months. I felt like hitting him because it was such an imbecile, but he did say something that sums it up pretty well (when asked why he likes it so much here): “Because the women are beautiful and the men are ugly”. A little harsh, but so true. Women go out of way to display their femininity – which I suppose is something all European women do, but Russians definitely are a cut above the rest. In boiling hot Iran, all women have to cover themselves completely. In barely five degrees Russia, women are wearing skirts that you see on a beach party. And apparently they even do it in the middle of winter at minus twenty degrees weather.

As for sex: how many times do you go to a nightclub and there are professional strippers on the bar? This one club in St Petersburg, I would be dancing, and then there would be an announcement every hour or so. Everyone would gather around an elevated stage with a pole, and watch the five minute routine – men and women alike watching a strip tease dance that repeatedly left my tongue on the ground. When finished, the disco music would start again, and everyone would resume to dancing as if nothing had just happened.

Women in Russia - freezing, and yet they still wear short skirts

I asked a member of the female species why do they wear such short skirts, in such cold weather. Answer: “Because it looks good”.

Russia and stereotypes
Forget the stereotypes, this is what I experienced: Russians are educated, cultured, and will go out of their way to help a stranger. My shock of this last fact was exacerbated by how I was not expecting people in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg to be friendly – which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in Europe respectively. A typical example, was when I caught the train to the city centre from the airport. Moscow’s metro is the best in the world – which also means it is bloody complicated, especially for someone still learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I got off the wrong metro station, and asked a man where the hell was I. In his limited English he told me to follow him and walked me to the next station where I was meant to be connecting at – a five minute walk completely out of his way. This is but one example where people went out of their way to help me.

They say that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. And it?Ǭ¥s not just for experiencing the culture, but for safety reasons as well – you don’t want to stand out as a tourist. But stand out I did. My drunk neighbour on the flight had also made the comment that I looked different. Apparently “American”. Still trying to work that one out.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems even though I had foreigner written on my forehead and I did have a bit of fun with it. But the homogeneity of the population is amazing, and people that look different like the people from southern Russia, are constantly pulled up by police on the street for passport and bag checks.

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Can you see it, on my forehead? It says “I am a foreigner”

Actually, a slight tangent: in St Petersburg, a university professor from Cambridge university, tried to pick me up. To cut a long story short, I had coffee with him, whilst he attempted to impress me, and invite me back to his apartment for drinks and to see his jacuzzi. The reason I am mentioning this story, is not because of how disgusted I was that a lonely gay man twice my age tried to pick me up, but rather to vent my anger with him because this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
During our discussion, he complained how the Russian academic staff at the university were all straight, which was a weird thing as everyone back in England in his architecture department is gay. And how it bothered him, how they treated him differently. I completely agreed with him, and how bad it is homophobia is so strong here – ever since I got over my schoolboy homophobia, I have always supported gay rights. But then he said two things that made me angry.
The first thing was how he likes St Petersburg because everyone here is white. He doesn’t like the coloured people he has to mix with in London.
The second thing, was how impressive the architecture is in the city. What makes it so impressive, is that the Tsars had millions of slaves dying to make this grand buildings – something a western European ruler would never be able to get away with. And that is what makes them even more special.
So here I am with one of Europe’s leading academics (apparently), sympathising with his inequality, and yet he goes on in the same breath to say how good it is to be in a city full of white people which was built by generations of rulers who had no regards for human life. I felt like getting up and yelling at this maggot to go shove a communist sickle up his arse.
However gay rights are something Russians are not exactly supportive. I had a few conversations with some girls on several issues, and it is interesting to see how traditional minded they are. Point being, how socially conservative the youth are ( just imagine what the adults are like!).

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This church in Moscow took 44 years to build, and was later knocked down by Stalin. They recently rebuilt it, using modern technology, in just four years. The interior is amazing.

Then again, the gay thing might have something to do with the fact that there are ten million more women than men in Russia! Settle down though boys – some statistics a friend of mine dug up show that the numbers don?Ǭ¥t actually skew until after age 33 – there are actually slightly more men than women before that. Yet the numbers do imply the affects of three of Russia’s biggest problems: AIDS, Booze, and Chechnya.

There were an estimated 860,000 people living with HIV at the end of 2003 in Russia, and this figure looks set to increase. It has the highest HIV epidemic in all of Europe, although numbers do appear to be falling. The affects of such a disease, especially with an aging population though – is bad.
Alcohol is a serious problem. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was launched in 1985, within two years life expectancy for men increased 3.2 years for women and 1.4 for women. Those improvements have since been lost, but it does tell a sad story. Russia, with a population of 143.2 million, has 2.37 million registered alcoholics. The average quantity of pure alcohol per person is 8.7 litres. That’s like everyone in Russia drinking 53 ml of Vodka a day.

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Moscows metro: deep, man.

Chechnya is a topic sensitive to Russians. Especially given the terrorist attacks on ordinary Russians by Chechnya’s militants wanting independence. Vladimir Putin recently said he wishes all Chechnyans are flushed down the toilet “We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re going to chase terrorists everywhere. If we track them down in a loo, we will rub them out in the loo, too.” This is the head of the government saying this. The fact he can get away with it – and also the reason why he said it – shows how much the war has affected the Russian psyche.
However the wars no doubt have had an impact on population numbers, especially with men who are the ones sent to war. Between 150,000 and 160,000 people have died in the two wars in Chechnya, according to Taus Djabrailov, the head of Chechnya’s interim parliament. The toll includes federal troops, rebel fighters, and civilians who died or went missing during both the first conflict (1994 to 1996) and the second, which began in 1999 and continues today. (Source). And lets not forget Afghanistan, which was Russia’s ‘Vietnam’ in the 1980s.

Mr Putin is also busy putting together the third Russian empire. People don?Ǭ¥t know who it is that controls their country, but as my friend Vera said, one more step backwards and she is out of there. Russia is a country in transformation. A strong man is needed to reorganise a country of its size, seeing as its democratic institutions have grown organically from a sick Soviet Empire (or rather, they have been re-branded as democratic). But a dictator is a dictator. The English-press in Russia seem to buzz with theories on how Putin will hold onto power, as he is legally restricted to two presidential terms. Given the nature of power, it is fairly obvious he will not let go the reigns of the government. However his decision on how he does this, will have huge ramifications on a country struggling to recreate itself.

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The double-headed imperial eagle, and the communist star – symbols of two former Russian empires. Wonder what Vladimir is cooking up for his new empire

Economically, the country is not healthy, reliant on oil and arms sales. Apparently 80 per cent of the country’s wealth flows into Moscow – which really makes me wonder what life must be like in the rest of Russia. One set of figures about wages I heard were as such: the average monthly salary is 9000 rubles. A doctor is payed about 3000 by the State (however his secretary probably gets 5000, because she is privately employed). Nine-thousand rubles is about 415 Australian dollars, 315 US dollars, or 260 Euros.

Those numbers are low, but it doesn?Ǭ¥t shock me that much, because I have been to a lot of poor countries where the wages are very similar. But what shocked me was that these are figures for people in Moscow. And in Moscow, I found the prices to be comparable to Sydney and New York. In Australia, the average monthly salary is $4,300 – ten times more than what I was told as the average salary in Russia/Moscow.

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You throw money over your shoulder for luck, and the babushkas behind you desperately catch the money. There are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world, and as you can see, plenty of poverty as well

Russia has one of the worlds richest histories, although a very brutal one as well. A visit to European St Petersburg makes you stagger at the cultural richness of the country, and Moscow’s fast paced, hedonistic consumer lifestyle, makes your head spin to think this was once the communist nerve centre of the world (communism? where?!)

If Russia’s leading two cities have transformed that much in 15 years, I am looking forward to see what it will become in another 15.

Bulgaria

Having checked the map, I’ve realised that my trip-to-be isn’t really Eastern Europe in as much as it is Central Europe. And the term ex-Eastern Bloc is so passe. So let me start again: Greetings from the ex-commie bastard countries, before they turn into capitalist prick countries! Oh, I am excited!
The doctor ordered I stay in Greece another 10 days to recover, since my last blog posting. She could feel my anger, and did not charge for the session. The next visit, although better, she said I needed another month to fully recover – on top of the previous 25 days I had, locked up in Athens with rare glimpses with the outside world. Fearing for her life, she said it should be okay for me to leave. The next day, I was on a train north.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Orthodox Christian iconography, at the big mother of a church in Sofia. Love them. And so does the Vatican, which sells them – the churches may disagree on doctrine, but they both know what sells well

So what to say about Bulgaria? The women are ridiculously hot (even the store mannequins looked good); the country is ridiculously cheap (and apparently, those two facts are not mutually exclusive, as I explain below). And I have never said the word “ridiculous” so many times, to describe a country.
I spent two days in Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia – and four in a former capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia was pleasant; VT was great but could have been 10 times better if it wasn’t raining. We spent two nights hoping it would clear up, and I had to spend another night there because my bus to my next country broke down on the way. Unfortunately the day I left was also when it started clearing up, but I figure I will explore the country another time.

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Managed to get some pictures on my last day. The castle at Veliko is built on one of the three hills that the city sits on.

I enjoyed Sofia because it was bustling with people, had chic areas to hang out, and I had trouble trying to spend my money – always a good sign! In VT, despite the rain, I had some good company. I had met two British kids – Lydia and James – in Sofia, and said to meet them in VT. Although they left the day before me, they arrived at the same time and found me as I was walking to the hostel in VT, with a taxi driver that had no idea where they wanted to go. ?Ѭ? was wondering why it took them an entire day to get here, and they explained. In Bulgaria, like in Albania, they shake their heads sideways for ‘yes’ and up-down for ‘no’. Put simpler, the opposite to the rest of the world. So when on the bus the previous day, they asked the bus driver if the current stop was VT. He shook his head sideways, to indicate yes. The kids read it as a no. And so they spent the night on the Black Sea resort of Varna, a few hours from where they had originally planned to be.

Although it was raining, Lydia and James – who had met one week earlier but looked like a married couple together (something I think a lot of travelers can relate to when traveling alone) helped pass the rainy days with me. Lydia with her slapstick humour and James with his political incorrectness, wit, and political incorrectness. We found this amazing restaurant and we would eat there all day whilst laughing. On more serious discussions, James and I would reminisce the good old days of the British Empire, and how good the times were with slavery. James and I realised we are also a compatible writing team, as we discovered when writing an entry in the guest-book, and we are currently brainstorming a book we promise to write for the growing travel market. The book is called “Islamic Jihad on a shoe-string” or how to blow shit up on the cheap, for the budget traveler. I think we may have cornered a niche market here.

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The food was unbelievable. And ridiculously cheap: this dish cost about Five Lev or Three Euros. Also, they iron the tables with table-cloths when re-setting. Maybe that is what Sydney restaurants are missing?

Bulgarians look different from the rest of the people that inhabit the Balkan peninsula. Like the Serbs, there is a hint of Slavonic blood in them, but their unique look is obviously more dominated by other tribes. There is obviously some Thracian blood in them, but there is also a Turkic central-Asian look, from the Bulgar tribes that migrated in the 7th century AD. They have this characteristic round look, as in round face – like a teddy bear face. Having said that, there is also the sharp nose, sharp face look. Either way, they look different. And on the highly charged issue of Macedonia, I have to say the Macedonians do look a little different.

Sofia is located near the Republic of Macedonia’s border. It was picked as capital, because of the wishful thinking that one day Bulgaria would be reunited with “Western Bulgaria”, with Sofia as the capital in the middle of the country. Bulgarians claim the neighbouring Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, that speak a dialect of Bulgarian. I personaly find the Macedonians to be a little more Slavic in appearance. Either way, it’s a hotly contested issue. Maybe if the Bulgarians learnt how to move their heads for yes and no like the rest of the world, there wouldn’t be such a communication problem when discussing senstive issues like these? I was very confused when talking about the subject.

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Veliko is bu?Ѭ±lt on these hills. It was a strategic city, as it lay on the Rome-Constantinople road.

Bulgarians are very pro-Russia. In fact, when most of the commie bloc countries in the north where trying to get out of the Warshaw Pact, the Bulgarians voluntarily asked to be a part of the USSR in 1973. Whilst cheap Vodka may have something to do with it, the “we love Mother Russia” view is probably also due to the historic relationship with the Russians, where the Russians liberated the Bulgarians from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

Russian church St Nikolay

Russian Church, built by the Russian Ambassador in the 1800s. They reckon he thought the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches spooked him, so he needed some Real McCoy Russian spritual protection

Squashed by the Byzantine Empire, supressed by the Ottoman Empire, and ‘liberated’ by the Russians – the Bulgarians are slated for joining the European Union in 2007. People don’t seem to understand why, nor care. The owner of the hostel at Sofia that I stayed at, reckons Bulgarians don’t have a deeply rooted culture of democracy. The concept of being an independent state isn’t a concept they understand. Whilst they are very proud of their culture, they are not so proud about their country. He reckons Bulgaria needs to be ruled by someone, because they don’t know better themselves.

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Sofia city centre.

Turbo folk music seems to be popular, music that has swept the Balkan states. I was told in Serbia, everyone hates it but it seems to be popular in Bulgaria. The girl at the VT hostel hates it as well, saying it is a bit like American R’n’B music with cars, naked girls, and sex. My Serbian friends claim it is nationalistic propaganda music. With short skirts and girls, I think I now understand how propaganda works.

And finally, a funny story. Was taking pictures.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Actually, this picture to be exact

And a young man in a business suit asked me for the time. Then, he gave me his business card. It was too funny to refuse the card.

Medical control!

"non stop"

The card he gave me. Notice “non-stop”, ” medical control” and the generous discount.

Unfortunately, that is all I have to say. Blame the rain. Currently in Turkey and lovin’ it.

Albania

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”. Well, I have another two certainty’s to add to the list: Japanese tourists are everywhere, and cab drivers are scum bags worldwide. But rather than complain, I want to tell you the stories I heard for this enigmatic country.

I have just spent three days (and two nights) visiting Albania. Whilst I was only there for a short time, I was satisfied in what I learnt, and absolutely fascinated. I stayed in Saranda, which is a port-city at the south of the country, near the Greek border. It is opposite the Greek island of Corfu. I stayed in an area called “exsamilia” which means ‘six miles’ – the six mile stretch of land under Saranda, which ends where Corfu starts. Deep rural territory! The south of the country is very Greek influenced, and I had to rely on my Greek for the entire time of my trip. Not only has Greek always been popular in the South, but some one-million plus Albanians (and that is a conservative estimate) have lived in Greece for some period of time. The people I stayed with, fled the country when the Iron curtain finally fell in 1990, and like so many others, recently returned to begin a new life.

Albania is one of the world’s most misunderstood countries – and I emphasis the mis-understanding of its people. Until 1990, it was a communist country run by the iron-fist of Hoxha (pronounced”Hodja”), as first-secretary (pronounced “dictator”). Access to the outside world was completely shut off, and Hoxha created a country that was so similar to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that it sent a shiver up my spine. His death in 1985, which is still being lamented, led to the country becoming the last domino to tumble in Eastern Europe’s communist downfall.

Under Hoxha’s rule, organised religion was banned. The entire population was spread out into small villages, with freedom of movement prohibited, even to the next town. Agriculture was collectivised. People were paid a daily wage of 200 Lekke, with no one in the country receiving more than 500. Young men served in the military, for I think three-years, and had to do nine-days annually again to retrain them with new weapons and methods. The country was turned literally into a military state, as there was a constant fear that Albania’s neighbours would invade. Cinema’s were available, but forget about love stories: the only movies shown were ones that where with the party line, namely being war. Television was first introduced in 1970, as an outlet for the governments propaganda. The 'bunkers', which served As entry points into the nations underground tunnel network
A tunnel Network connects the entire country, with small-domed bunkers dotting the country side for entry/exit into the tunnel networks. You would see these bunkers in the most remote, unpredictable areas.

If you criticised the regime, you were done for. If you forcefully pushed a woman in any sort of form, good-bye you. There was no crime, no criticism. Everyone lived like one big family. People felt safe; however they would wet their pants when I would ask about the Secret Police. It seems old habits die hard – such was the fear in the country.

Despite what people think, there was democracy. Polling booths opened at 6 and closed at 6.30. You could vote for anyone you wanted, as long as they were a legally recognised political party: which for all that time, was only the communist party. Election results for the communists always turned out to support it 99.98 per cent of the time. The other 0.02% were grandmothers who dropped their glasses. Although even if there were opposition candidates, I would not be surprised if, by their own free will, a majority would vote communist. They had been convinced to be happy with what they had.

As I said earlier, a daily wage consisted of 200 Leke. With 300 Lekke, you could buy 15 kg of bread, to give you an idea of the cost of living. To pay off your debt to the government for living in an apartment, you simply had to work one day a month. Theoretically people worked eight hours a day, starting at 7am, although most would doze off, clocking a few hours and spending the rest of the day chatting. They worked seven days a week. There were opportunities for entertainment, and there were no restrictions on procreation! But with such work hours, no one stayed out late. In fact, if you were seen out past 12am, you were in trouble. You would be criticised as being lazy and against the country, and you would be put in the prisons. To this day, no one knows what happened in those prisons.

When foreigners would come into the country, or Albanians studied abroad to help with a skill shortage, they had to get their story right before they came in. They were told to tell everyone that the outside world is a mess. There is no electricity, clean water, pure lawlessness. They were told to say Albania was one of the luckiest countries in the world. Given that Albanians had no contact with the outside world, is it any surprise Hoxha is treated like a god?

In 1990, the communists were ousted. The country basically turned into a barbaric society of lawlessness. In 1997, over 70 per cent of the population lost their savings in pyramid schemes, which resulted in nationwide uproar. Groups broke into the military barracks, and guns were stolen. There was open street warfare on the roads. People would shoot at someone, just for the sake of target practice. As such, in 1990 and 1997, you saw a large majority of the population spread to neighbouring countries. One guy I met left with his friends in the winter, and trekked through the mountains to get to Greece. It snows a lot in winter in Northern Greece. But they were desperate.

Having been to Greece several times since 1990, I grew up with the Greek racism. That they were cunning, thieves, and no-good people. I believed that to the day I got into Albania. Even though I don’t like to think of people as unequal, I just always had this perception that Albanians were scum. How wrong was I! And how wrong is racial tension in the rest of the Balkans, where Albanians are shunned. I have never in my life been treated with more respect and hospitality. Although I had a negative experience with a taxi driver when the bus dropped me off at the border, that was only because he over-charged me – but this was more a case of my inexperience as a first time traveller rather than him being a bad person.

Everywhere I went, people would shout me drinks. Even my taxi drivers! On my way out of the country, I had to catch a bus for Corca to Progradec. During that one hour or so, I sat next to a middle aged Albanian man. He did not speak English or Greek; I did not speak Albanian. So we had a conversation purely with sign language. He knew ten words in English which helped, however four of those consisted of “I don’t speak English”. Once we got off the bus, he insisted I go to his house for a coffee. There his son, who spoke English, could translate. They then told me, after ten minutes in the house, that they would drive me to the Macedonian border in the wife’s brother?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s taxi, free of charge!! I saved about 10 Euros, as well as the hassle of trying to find transport to the border. Who would do that in Sydney?

At no stage, did I ever feel unsafe, or disrespected. In fact, everyone took a genuine interest in looking after me. The people I stayed with literally treated me like their son. The people I met along the way, were extremely worried about the next stage of my journey without their help. They would go out of their way to help me. The only thing I was worried about, was trying to work out the right-fare for a cab fare, but I only had to worry about that once, at the beginning. The cost of living is incredibly cheap there – I was told I was ‘ripped off’ by this restaurant at Saranda: I paid the equivalent to five euros, and was absolutely stuffed!

A lot of the young hate communism. But the old, or rather people 35+, think of the old days with nostalgia. There are two reasons for this: poverty, and security.

For people born in the communist state, that knew of a country with complete security, harmony, and equality. When capitalism and democracy came in, they saw lawlessness and inequality. Young girls who previously could walk around the country in perfect security, have been poached for prostitution around the Balkans. People are living in extreme poverty, and are being forced to fend for themselves. We may find it absurd how people like them prefer communism and totalitarianism over capitalism and democracy, and yet we need to see it though their eyes: their experience in being ‘free’ has turned their country in an anarchy. What so free about not being able to feed and protect your family?
The inland landscape during my bus trip

Albania has got the cleanest water I have ever swum in. It also has the most beautiful inland landscape I have ever seen. My bus trip took me along roads I didn’t think roads could go, along mountains. Imagine two mountain ranges, separated by a valley 100 metres wide. And in that valley, a stream and sometimes river would run, with the ground completely covered in farm land. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take great pictures because the bus was moving, and when I realised I should take a picture, we had already passed the best bits. It really was breathtaking.

I think Albania has got massive potential. Not just as a tourist destination however. During communism, religion was banned. Organised religion is one of the biggest set backs of modern society, because it was a form of control imposed by empires 2000 years ago. The traditions, hatred and history constrain us to this day. As an Orthodox Christian, if I was to marry a Catholic Christian, my family would despair. In Albania however, if you are a Muslim, and you find a person you are happy with who is Christian, you have the full blessings of everyone. Whilst spirituality is an important part of the human dimension, organised religion should not be separating us. Despite Albanian’s economic problems, and inexperience in democracy, I think they are an advanced society, whereby all citizens are genuinely equal. In fifty years time, we will be seeing them as a model.
A mosque and Church, recently built as they were all demolished during communist days, standing near each other in perfect harmony

The elections next month are on everyone?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s minds. Whoever wins, people are predicting that it will be a hung parliament. The feeling with people is that the centre-right New Democracy party needs to win, to give the country stop steps forward, rather than backwards, as the communist party is doing. These elections will be the crucial thing to see whether it take 5 or 50 years for Albania to get itself together.

I am currently in Ohrid in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, the tourist Mecca of the country. It really is beautiful here, and I am still experiencing, so I better get off this computer and find some English speaking locals. And as they would say in Macedonian, “ayde ciao!”.

Landed

I’ve landed safely – finally!

It’s been an interesting experience so far. When I was at Sydney airport, waiting in the check-in queue which was chokka-block, my mind drifted and I kept perving at one of the airport workers. Unfortunately, every time I looked, she caught me out. But it obviously paid off, because she let the guys in front of me as well as myself to jump the queue and line up at the business class section which had nobody waiting!

So as I am checking in, making idle chit-chat with the attendant, she tells me I have been upgraded to business class. I told her she was making a mistake, because I’m just a plebian that got lucky with the queue situation, but it turns out that because the flight was over booked, and because I am a “high-level customer”, I had my seat upgraded! United Airlines is part of star alliance, and due to my trip to Greece in 2003, I had acquired ‘Silver Status’.

As I walked to my gate, I looked for my passport to board the flight. It was missing. Somewhere between immigration and the gate, I had dropped my passport. With 15 minutes until the gates closed, I ran around like a chicken on ecstasy. It was finally found by some guy underneath the X-ray machines – it must of slipped out of my plastic travel case as I was collecting my items. Reconfirmation of a lesson previously learnt #1: When they say never lose sight of your passport, it means literally, never lose sight!

As I am sitting in my business class seat, thinking I had used up my luck for today, I started speaking to my neighbour. Anyone ever heard of GATX? Me neither, but apparently they own most of the aircraft we fly on. Anyway, it turns out I was sitting next to Alan Coe, the guy in charge of the company’s two-billion-dollar aircraft division! Naturally of course, I asked all the pesky questions like how he got to where he is, and what he looked for in interviews. Even though we spent most of the flight sleeping, the chats I had with him about his life were really interesting. Although he has probably forgotten about me now, his words of wisdom will most likely make an impact on my career.

After that, the flight was rather uneventful. I had to transit via San Francisco and Chicago Airports, before I actually got to Dayton in Ohio. The only fun I had was asking a woman in San Francisco to look after my bags, whilst I went to the toilet – I did not give her a chance to reply, and when I got back she told me she had wet her pants, because you are not allowed to leave bags unattended (bombs and stuff). She was still shaking as we walked on the plane

My friend Debbie thought I was coming the next night and wasn’t at the airport. My phone battery had nearly died, and she was not answering her phone, but luckily I got through to her eventually and just in time. She abused me for misinforming, and I apologised profusely (even though they are not – always say a woman is right – until they realise they are wrong). However when we checked the e-mail I sent her with my flight details, she was wrong and she is indulging herself in some humble pie. Reconfirmation of a lesson previously learnt #2: Women are the same no matter where you are.